The asymmetrical room

November 29, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

Customers often send me drawings of their rooms. One of their biggest worries seems to be when the room is not symmetrical. And their greatest angst seems to occur if one side of the room opens wide into another part of the home.

Because one side of the room opens into another, the question becomes how in the heck to get good imaging if one channel has a sidewall while the other does not?

I am here to tell you you’re probably luckier than most.

Through setup we can always work around the sidewall problem using absorbers or diffusers or simply positioning. What we cannot easily fix is the bass problem. Enclosed rooms generally have lousy low frequency support. Between the standing waves that bunch up at the boundaries and the lack of room for long wavelengths to do their thing, bass suffers.

Those lucky enough to have a room where one wall opens into the rest of the house generally have plenty of area for bass to prosper.

Solving the sidewall asymmetry is easy compared to the bass problem.

If I have a choice, I’ll go for the open room every time.

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50 comments on “The asymmetrical room”

  1. So Paul, am I to assume that at the other end of Music Room 2
    (the end that we never get to see in your presentations) that
    there is no wall; that it just opens out into the warehouse?
    …you know…for better bass response? 😉

  2. We’ve gone more open plan and the main area where my stereo used to be is now about 25′ x 35′. It was reasonably large beforehand (for an urban house) and had open space behind and to one side.

    The stereo is now in a smaller space, about 14′ x 18′ with a bay, built with acoustics in mind (but none obviously visible), I sit quite a bit closer and the result is way better than before.

    I can slide away the rear wall in a few seconds and the room becomes over 50′ long, just as Paul describes. I’ve only done it once or twice. Perhaps this is the benefit of not being a bass junkie.

  3. Not very nice of you to say it can be easily fixed but then not explain how. 🙂

    It also depends upon the speakers; as you mentioned in your Magnepan video, when I recently moved from speakers with conventional drivers back to planars, my room sounded better with all the panels I had on the wall to tame the dynamic speakers removed.

    I have one of those rooms that is completely open on one side to a large additional room (the left wall, as seen when facing the speakers, doesn’t exist), and it soundstages beautifully with only one corner bass trap in the right corner behind the right speaker.

  4. Probably explains why I feel I don’t need a subwoofer Paul…
    … I have two full range (30Hz ish) stereo towers in a 4M by 3M room with the back wall part open leading into a dining room, plus that leads to a kitchen with a door that I leave ajar.

    I certainly seem to get a deep rich bass without boom, even tried a decent recording of an octobass – which was bonkers but amazing as that managed to cause the recording room to ‘resonate boom’ in a good way. I enable all large surround sound speakers for movies, still for me no need for subs. The centre front and centre back can go very low frequency. All surround speakers needed for some multichannel music, like Dark side of the Moon on SACD, where it’s not as you recently commented “the front pair and back surrounds just have effects”. Some of the music in modern films is amazingly well recorded, using all channels. I’d also add that in some films they use a wide frequency for ALL channels and I can hear highs and deep bass effects anywhere in the room.
    The fundamental frequencies of the lowest notes in this tuning lie below 20 Hz — the commonly-stated lower bound of human hearing range — but these notes are nevertheless audible due to the overtones they produce. (An organ’s 32′ stop also exceeds the supposed 20 Hz limit.)

  5. With all this talk of room problems it might be suggested that the best room is no room at all. Has anyone ever tried playing their hi-fi outside? I haven’t. I’d imagine the sound might be described as clean but personally I think it could sound terrible without the reflections and reverb of the room, especially as that’s what we are used to. It would also be bloomin’ cold out there with the snow we have today. I’m very grateful and appreciate my room, with all its limitations. You could say a room is a good match for people, flawed 😉

    1. Yes Rich…I tried it once, just out of curiosity.
      I set my Ditton 66’s up in the back yard & played them as loud as I could but I didn’t get the sort of solid, visceral dynamics that you get from being in a room, regardless of size.
      It’s like the sound was able to fly away in the light afternoon breeze.
      Not a satisfying listen, but I really impressed the neighbours.

      1. Martin, I’ve been to too many live outdoor concerts and certainly understand that this sound without a containing venue it’s pretty awful. I go for the performers and not for the musical sound when listening outdoors.

        Check out this unbelievable recording of Keith Jarrett playing in an open indoor venue. The closest sound to a live piano even on his cell phone. It’s just incredible:
        I’ve been looking at the microphone placement even though it’s sort of dark in the concert hall and I am not sure where the magic is coming from but I think it’s for several reasons.

        Paul, I suggest you listen to this performance as well. I’d love to hear more recordings like this.

        1. The best live audio I have ever experienced was outdoors, ie: The Eagles and Supertramp, on two separate occasions in different cities, both occurring in the 1980s when audio technology was by no means in its infancy, but is surely even more advanced today. In fact, the Eagles sound tech warmed up the audience with about an hour or more of nothing but Steely Dan recordings, and it was like listening to an exceptionally good hi-fi system.

          It requires a system that is up to the task by way of being very high quality (say for example Meyer Sound), correctly scaled and tuned to the venue, and manned (or womaned) by sufficiently qualified technical talent. The absence of walls and a roof are be no means any impediment to achieving sonic excellence in a live venue.
          One caveat though, the show must not be staged in inclement weather conditions that include above wind above a certain threshold. On a gusty afternoon or evening, indoor shows definitely rule.

          1. WTF, I liked your comment a lot. I think you have a really good handle on the subject of handling live events and what it really takes to get the sound to be so good that the energy level goes up by a factor of five or more. I believe the Dead had a system that was partially designed by John Curl, a truly outstanding Design Engineer. Most people say the same thing after hearing concert by the Dead. Most incredible sound I’ve ever heard.

            That’s the absolute truth.

      1. Whole the fluid dynamic properties of open air provides some bass development, it can’t come close to indoors.

        I played an amplified electric bass in outdoor situation‘s in my 20s, and can attest to the deficiency of open air.

    2. I love lying on the grass – listening to headphones. Good weather is a requirement, not the icy conditions prevailing at the moment. Playing hifi in the garden is deeply antisocial anyway. Listening to live unamplified music in the open air is not particularly satisfying either.

      Given a 30hz wavelength is some 38 feet and 25hz is 45 feet, to get that sort of space I’d have to move to Kansas. Nothing against Kansas, but I’d rather stay where I am.

      Being able to open my room from about 18 feet to over 50 feet to the rear wall, without any significant benefit, I suspect Paul’s generalisation about bass being an issue in smaller rooms is perhaps an over-generalisation. I don’t suppose many people have two 8 foot towers of bass arrays either.

  6. I agree with BillK: Could you please provide some guidance about set-up aimed at good bass in open rooms.

    I have struggled for years with my open room. Various loudspeakers plus subwoofers always gave poor (mid)bass in the listening & sitting area and excess bass in the dining area and kitchen… Making the same combination sound good in a rectangular room was far easier.

  7. I’m optimistic by your response but how do we fix it? Is this covered in your book? The notorious lack of wall from the family room being adjoined to the kitchen space that is part of modern floor plans.

  8. Having had the opportunities to set up my system (only with changes in electronics and cables) I came away with the following….

    A big ass open floor plan great room of about 1100- 1200sq foot with 15 ft arched ceilings was probably the best room / house I ever had for sound. The issue was that the only time I could listen and throughly enjoy was when I was home alone or for shorter times then I would like to do. Otherwise it was too much when people visited, or when the rest of the household tried to communicate / live. So listening session compromise became paramount. In different areas of the house bass was stronger and more pronounced. To me that is just a fact of life.

    I’m in a much smaller single purpose ‘audio only’ room now. Thus I could sound proof / diffuse, and layout things any way I want and listen at any volume I want. In one corner is a moderate size closet. Removing that door and repositioning the system layout made a huge difference in bass response and boom. In fact if I need boom or bass only I go in there….

    In the end what I have now is less than an audiophile ideal, of unimpeded super low bass response. But when measured and adjusted the room stays at around +/- 1.5 db SPL’s from 32Hz -16 KHz.

    It’s taken a long time and is still a work in progress. But I get more reproduced audio enjoyment now, and haven’t to build a special outbuilding / room and then become an audio hermit.

  9. I had a symmetric/asymmetric room where I lived before. It was more or less symmetric left/right, but asymmetric front/back, due to an open breakthrough and stairs down to the kitchen in the middle behind the listening chair.

    Once a local recording engineer who has a fully optimized high end studio in parallel came over and listened. He said to me: one thing you definite don’t have…a bass problem.

    At the time I had a Gryphon Antileon, A Gryphon Electra or Hovland HP 100 and this speaker, which due to this room and the big amp, worked down low without sub.

  10. Yes Paul you have described my listening room/living room set up except it’s not open plan and 12’× 14′ and not very big either.
    The lefthand speaker is close to the side wall and the right is not, my only option to not overload the room would be leaving the doors open to adjoining rooms.
    It’s an asymmetrical room also not square with partially sloping ceiling and a small vestibule next to my listening chair opposite the left speaker.
    But it’s all I’ve got it sounds good most of the time depending on what is played.

  11. After decades (and decades…) of experience with all shorts (and shapes) of rooms I would always go for the symmetrical room.
    If and when you build a dedicated listening room, the first “law” is to get it completely symmetrical.
    Always recommended.

  12. I agree with all of you folk who think that a symmetrical room will give you higher quality audio reproduction. I moved from an asymmetrical area this past February to a rectangular room and I was able to rearrange my speakers and entire system to the point where I am in heaven when I listen to my music.

    PS I feel that I have my bass frequencies in a good place now as well. It may not be ideal but it is not interfering with my overall vision experience which means it’s not so bad I guess.

  13. I have a pretty good situation with respect to my listening room. It is large, about 850 square feet with 11 foot ceilings. It is very asymmetrical in many ways ( too many to explain without a diagram ) and the rear wall ( the wall to your back when seated with the speakers in front of you ) has large asymmetrical openings that allow the deep bass notes wavelengths to fully develop. We listen it what I would call a near field position which is about nine to ten feet from the speakers ( this is a line of sight distance ).

    One thing that I think really helps get the bass right is to have sealed speakers. They are less sensitive than ported speakers when it comes to placement in the room.

        1. I’ll put that on my bucket list – “Go to America and visit Walmart”. How that slipped below “balloon over Sossusvlei” and “hike to Tiger’s Nest” escapes me.

            1. Besides discovering the true meaning of a supermarket, I can’t think of a good reason to go to the USA at the moment. It seems to have gone insane in recent years with one half hating the other half as if their life depended on it. If Americans took to playing cricket, all would be resolved and everyone would get on. We don’t really go to supermarkets, they come to us, over here we have a weekly delivery.

    1. I agree, sealed speakers and/or subs are more manageable in my experience. My current (Anthem room corrected) subs are sealed while my main (floorstanding) speakers are not. I struggled to get the low mid bass of the latter under control with placement alone until I finally resorted to bunging the (rear) ports with 1/2″ ethylene foam with satisfactory results, rendering them semi-sealed, I guess. I have always had ported speakers my whole life and the MartinLogan subs I now use are the first sealed woofers I’ve ever tried with excellent results. They extend evenly to 22Hz with no descernable lumps in the response.

  14. Twenty one years ago when my job led me to relocate and look for a house in L.A., my stereo system and digital pipe organ were a main driver in my search. I would whistle and clap my hands in the living/great room of every house my realtor showed me, before quickly giving him a thumbs down. The agent thought I was crazy and finally asked, “Why on earth do you do that?” I told him I was assessing the reverb. To fit my constrained budget I finally settled on a fixer in order to get the kind of acoustical space I wanted for my systems.

    My great room is an asymmetrical 25 feet x 40 feet area with almost 11,000 cubic feet of volume. The walls are at different angles to each other. The ceiling varies in three directions from 8′ to 14′ high, sloping upward away from the speakers. Even the floor has a level change. Bass is very uniform and room effects are friendly. An area rug and furnishings control the reverb. I sit 11 to 12 feet away from the front line of my speakers with them spaced about 10 feet apart with 7.5 feet between them and the side walls. Before the area rug and furnishings, the room was way too live. The sound was confused and unfocused. You could hear time-delayed sounds ping-ponging off the surfaces of the room. A large area rug, window treatments and furnishings easily tamed all that.

    1. “Sounds” like a wonderfully set-up music environment, Joseph! Would love to hear it one day!!

      My dedicated listening music room is a “little” bit smaller (9’x10′- 9% of yours)?! Also has an 11ft ceiling, an alcove entry way on the right (only asymmetrical wall), with full carpeting, heavy closet raised panel double doors (right side), treated false french door windows (left side), oil paintings on walls for diffraction control and room decor (a love seat listening position and side table for some music sources) does the rest of the balanced acoustics!

      Yes, a quasi near-field environment, monitors are just 5′ apart with my sweet spot position 7′ away. Clapping hands, the single return reverb/reflection anywhere in the room is about .o15 of a second…not too live and not too dead. Although the sub’s 3db down point is 18hz, what I hear/feel is mostly the upper harmonics of the lowest bass notes. Overall balance, soundstage and realism allows the stereo presentation to expand Way Beyond my room boundaries, allowing the recorded venue’s ambiance and spatial clues to easily transport me into the acoustical musical performance!


      1. Ted, your setup sounds perfect. If I didn’t have the pipe organ and a grand piano, I could be perfectly happy with a much smaller space with a semi-near-field monitor set up. In fact, I used to have my present speakers in a much smaller room with such a setup.

    2. Deep bass sound waves bend around corners and even make U-turns, so if the listening room opens to other rooms the rooms don’t have to be on straight-line axis with the listening room for bass waves to develop. I have a 12-foot alcove off the great room and a 16-foot long kitchen perpendicular to the 40-foot axis of the great room, which gives a total effective length for bass wave development of 68 feet, almost the wavelength of 16 Hz. Of course such long wavelengths are felt, not heard, and require bass drivers that move a lot of air.

      In pipe organs the very long bass pipes often have 90-degree and even 180-degree bends. Our houses often offer such bent space, so even small rooms that open to other rooms, stairwells, corridors, etc. have bass wave development potential.

      You can often feel the deep bass downstairs or upstairs as waves travel down and up the stairwells. In a cathedral as you travel up the stairwell from the crypt to the nave you first hear the organ’s deep bass, and as you ascend the stair the progressively higher frequencies can then be heard.

      Of course anyone can feel low bass from low bass capable drivers even in a closed small room. I’m talking about pure bass standing wave development.

  15. One of the worst things you can have in a residential music listening room is a short flat ceiling. There are no cures for this sonic handicap.

    The Grateful Dead were capable of exceptional outdoor sound, but then again, they were sound engineers. Some of our best sounding recordings were at outdoor venues such as The Greek Theatre UC Berkeley, Frost Amphitheatre Stanford University and Red Rocks Morrison Colorado. Close up front, center stage.

    1. Grateful Dead?
      Augustus Owsley Stanley III (January 19, 1935 – March 12, 2001) – American sound engineer & top-shelf LSD manufacturer, strikes again 😀

      1. Yep, ol Bear changed the world, and many of his recordings from the late 60s and early 70s are classics. The Wall of Sound was great fun and a terrific carnival ride, but it wasn’t until the early 90s when the Ultrasound system was completely dialed in and still remains the best sounding live music sound reinforcement system ever designed, period!

        Now, if you could possibly convince the author to move that behemoth, ego driven, dinosaur speaker system out of Music Room 2 and focus the full-on FR-30 PS Audio System presentation in that superior sounding room instead of band-aiding Music Room 3 you will have changed the world.

        Well, at least this little corner of the internet anyway!

        1. **NEWS FLASH**

          Check out ‘Music Room 3’ (MR3) on ‘Ask Paul’ – Active Vs Passive Speakers (November 30, 2021)
          This way Paul doesn’t have to move the IRSV’s…he can just close
          the door to MR2 & let the cobwebs take over.
          Meanwhile, the FR-30’s can happily reside in MR3 🙂

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